Korea: A Different View

The question why the resolve of the masses in China to get rid of Japanese imperialist occupiers, the KMT dictatorship, landlordism, and emerging capitalism  brought only intermittent self-emancipation  and improvement of the conditions of life is a question the Left must attempt to answer.  The gleeful observation of mainstream journalists, conservative university professors and mediocre politicians that a society without rulers who rule the many is impossible, that it did never exist and will never exist should not deter searching minds from looking for a solution to this question how a good measure of real liberation and real democracy, of freedom with equality and equality in conjunction with freedom can be attained.

High land rent levels weighed heavily in China, as it did in neighboring Korea and Japan. It was making life difficult for the families of landless peasants. Patriarchal social customs cemented relations of power in the countryside. Peasants were suppressed and peasant women suffered dual repression, as members of a suppressed class and in terms of gender. Agricultural laborers were little better of than serfs had been in Czarist Russia. In the port cities and in mining settlements, workers lead a wretched life. Famines due to bad harvests, the burder of rent payments, and the worse burden of having to repay debts to loan-sharks regularly caused waves of internal migration that swept hundreds of thousands from the North of China to the South. Many migrants ended up as coolies, beggars and prostitutes in the large port cities that were subject to Western capitalist penetration.

Although Korea, under Japanese colonialism, had seen a measure of dependent development (that mainly served the colonizing power and a tiny segment of Koreans who were ready to collaborate and who managed to recognize new commercial possibilities), the masses in Korea were not better off than in China. The war economy had even resulted in a marked decline of what mainstream scholars call the standard of life. But for many Koreans even the pre-war "standard of life" had actually been a non-standard, something they rejected and that made them feel miserable because their lives were so miserable. 

In 1945, with the weight of Japanese colonialism taken from their shoulder, Korea was as rife for a deep social transformation -- a social revolution -- as China. The bulk of the population lived in the countryside, and here the poor majority craved change. The workers who had toiled in Japanese-run extractive industries craved it, too. The "small people" in the cities and many writers and intellectuals, who were aware of the lot of the poor, longed for it. The "comfort women" and the deported workers, who had survived the war in Japan, wanted justice and a new, more humane society.

History's course is well known. The big powers divided Korea. They could have cut a child in two; it would not have been more cruel. The victim of Japanese colonialism and Japanese fascist militarism was again made a victim, much more than Japan. When the government of the United States of America insisted on the 38th parallel, thus on control of the Southern part of the country, they wanted a buffer zone -- in order to protect "their Japan," their new client state.

It is well-known how the United States freed Nazi criminals in France and Italy in the late 1940s, in order to employ them as anti-left hunting dogs. They knew that these men were trained in that business, they had been murderous enough, and they could sniff a Leftist who was a mile away. In Italy, the United States army also collaborated with the diverse segments of organized crime, especially the Sicilian mafia. Such collaboration has remained common practice ever since. Andreotti collaborated with them when he was prime minister -- the courts confirmed what everybody knew. Everybody says the same of Berlusconi. The courts are slow but they will find out in the end what everybody knows.

In Japan, the United Sates military regime did the same as in Italy. They collaborated with the local mafia. In Sicily, the Italian mafia shot leftists politicians and trade unionists and people who attempted to organize the rural poor, a restless mass of day laborers and agricultural workers on the big farms, and also the rent-paying peasants.

In Japan, under the eyes of the American authorities, the Japanese mafia continued with the business the militarist fascist regime had begun with. The regime had arrested trade unionist, people active in peasant associations. and in leftist parties. Also writers who revealed left-wing sympathies. They assassinated some, they murdered the others in prison. Those who were not well-known, who had escapted the murderours repression of the regime, those who had been too young at the time, but sniffed the wind of a new beginning in the fall of 1945 and thereafter, had to reckon with the Japanese mafia. The mafia was tolerated --for it was the inofficial arm of the powers-that-be, the American military government in Japan. They did what the Americans could not do. They killed commies. And socialists, and anarchist, and trade union organizers -- that is to say, "trouble-makers." The industrialists who had served the war effort of fascist, militarist official Japan so well and who had made money while doing so, were happy with the new arrangenent. America, that is to say, the US government, wanted a succesful Japanese capitalism.

So this is the background, in front of which Korean post-war history evolved. We all know the broad course of this history, a history of denied self-determination. To what extent Russia's game wrecked the fate of post-war Korea, we can only guess. This much is clear - there existed an armed Korean resistance movement in China's North East. The example of the Chinese revolution invigorated them. But having to rely largely on their own strength, this movement was to weak to attack the Japanese head on in Korea. The Soviet Union, in difficulties because of the Nazi onslaught, wanted to avoid war with Japan by all means, and declared war on Japan only in the very last minute, when Japan was already vanquished.

Before that declaration of war, the Stalin government must haven taken great pains to keep the Korean resistance from attacking from bases in the Soviet Far East.

But when the American forces arrived in the South of Korea, the leftist resistance movement was implanted already, both in the countryside and the cities of the American zone.

As in Japan and Italy, the American military authorities found willing helpers. In Korea's South, these helpers were mostly former collaborators of the Japanese colonial government, or those who had otherwise profited from the colonial situation and waxed rich.

We know what happened in Korea.
In spring 1948, the revolt on Cheju-do exploded. It led to massacres, the worst being the massacres at Mount Halla, in the center of the island. Mount Halla rises to a height of about 5,000 feet, and much of the island is rugged, mountaineous terrain that offered the armed peasants temporary bases and sites to retreat to. To put down the pesant revolt took the Quisling army and police about three years. At least 30,000 people were massacred by Syngman Rhee's forces, under American command. About 40,000 islanders fled to Japan.

The population of Cheju-do never could sing its song of bitterness openly under the various dictators kept in power by the U.S.A. Even today -- under the new, but very imperfect democracy -- anti-subversion laws keep political prisoners shut away. For decades, these laws helped seal the mouth of people who would tell the truth. Only recently one could finally notice that the truth of South Korea's "free" Syngman Rhee dictatorship and its bloody policies that lead to the Korean war, is coming to light.

Whereas the American zone was shaken by a number of spontaneous, regional, largely uncoordinated popular revolts between early 1948 and the beginning of the Korean war, the armed anti-Japanese resistance movement that had immediately consolidated its implantation in the North in 1945, had mutated into civilian Communist cadre organizations,  that is to say, a left-wing trade union and the Korean Worker's party, in the Soviet occupied zone between 1945 and 1948. The main effort now was focused on reconstruction and production. Japanese corporations had developed an extractive sector and a small industrial base that depended on the output of mines in the Northern part of the peninsula, a strategy dictated by profit motives and encouraged by the colonial administration. This effort was increased during the Pacific War in order to expand war-time production. It is not clear to what extent the Japanese army destroyed this industrial base at least in part at the end of the war. Basically, the Japanese forces had withdrawn from Korea without fighting, and the Soviet Red Army, like the US army, had entered their respective occupation zones peacefully. Thus, any sabotage or any planful scorched earth tactics, after Japan had unconditionally surrendered, would have violated the conditions of the document Japan's leaders had signed on board an American vessel, as dictated by General McArthur.

In 1948, the American government broke their promise to come to terms with the Soviet Union regarding the process which would establish a unified, neutral Korea. Disagreeing with Soviet proposals and refusing further talks, the US military government allowed its trusted local Quisling. Synghman Rhee, to organize fake elections for an assembly of delegates who would write a constitution of the proposed Republic of Korea (ROK), a South Korean state whose existence would cement partition. In quick, well-planned steps taken by Syngman Rhee and his right-wing followers, phony national elections were organized and Syngman Rhee was elected "President."  An election result of 98 percent for Syngman Rhee says everything about the free and fair character of this election process -- a "free and fair" quality attested by the United Nations team in the Southern part of the country  at the behest of the US government and welcomed by the Truman administration.

Even before the elections, the peasant uprising on Cheju-do had begun due to the fact that anti-election protests by the inhabitants of the island were gunned down. The American military commander on Cheju-do described the island as a "red" island. When more and more uprisings followed in many parts of the South Korean mainland, the Americans should have called these regions "red regions" and Southern Korea a "red land." But of course, even on Cheju-do there were landlords, wealthy merchants, and hated police officers who had already served the Japanese well when it was necessary to suppress the people. Like the North, the South was split along ideological and class lines. The majority, as elsewhere, was poor. And of this vast majority, a large part was no longer apathetic but ready to revolt.

It must be clear that the overwhelming election victory of Syngman Rhee's party was due to the fact that dedicated nationalist and leftists and most poor peasants and workers abstained, as their party, the South Korean Worker's Party, had avised them to do. When the election proceeded, both revolts and arrests as well as executions of South Korean Worker's Party members, of trade unionists, of activists organizing peasants into peasant associations were already under way. 

Just like the repressed Left in the South did not recognize the elections and the establishment of an American protectorate (the ROK), the Korean Workers Party in the North of what was still one undivided country did not recognize Syngman Rhee as president of a Republic of Korea nor the new "republic."  But then, prodded by the American government, a majority of members of the United Nations voted in favor of recognition of South Korea as a state and its acceptance as member of the United Nations. The Soviet Military Government in the Northern occupation zone followed suit, and asked the leadership of the Korean Workers Party to hold elections in the North, and  establish what was called a Democratic People's Republic.

It is assumed by most historians that the Korean Workers Party in the North followed either the Chinese or the Soviet Russian model. Both paradigms were based on a theoretical paradigm usually described as democratic centralism. It seems that this principle allowed a fair measure of intra-party democracy in the Chinese case, at least during the anti-KMT and anti-Japanese struggle (up to 1949), although the principles and concrete forms were different from those in liberal democracies. In Soviet Russia, intraparty democracy had been subverted, beginning with Lenin's taboo to form 'factions' within the party. Even temporary factons were not allowed -- which curtailed free intra-party debate.

When the Korean war started, the North saw it as a civil war, waged between parts of the Korean population split along  class-lines. This was at least not entirely wrong. Landlords had very largely fled the North, due to their disapproval of peasant cooperatives. When these were formed, it had entailed a form of collectivization. Collaborators feared punishment, and had fled to the American zone, too. And so did many members of the small group of wealthy entrepreneurs and merchants in the North. These Northerners, upon their arrival in the South, would then form, in 1948, the most cruel police units that suppressed peasant revolts and massacred peasants.

In view of the fact that pluralist liberal democracy, which gives such a large, in fact disproportionate share of influence and political power to a minority of the population, the bourgeoisie, had been abolished in Soviet Russia and that, subsequently, even pluralism within the bloc formed by the masses, the common people -- and therefore also intra-party democracy within the left party in power -- had been abolished, it is customary to assume something of the sort in the Soviet occupation zone of Korea. It is clear that the people's democracy concept demanded that political groups and parties bent on maintaining the social privilege and prerogatives of the urban bourgeoisie and of rich and middle farmers  ("the landlords") should be marginalized. Their political influence was voided. An attempt to regain it was to be treated as counter-revolutionary. But to what extent had the pre-'45 armed resistance movement and the clandestine underground party been undemocratic, in a real, materialistc (rather than formal sense)? Is it possible for dictatorial rogues who abuse people, who command and frighten them, to preserve control over members of a guerilla and over civilian cadres and members of an outlawed party operating in Korean, Japanese controlled cities and villages,  if these people do not freely accept that leadership and consent to the maintainance of the discipline that is necessary for their revolutionary struggle? Apparently, people forced to fight a guerilla war against a much stronger adversary would defect. Cadres and party members join due to their conviction and because they share a goal or goals: social justice, equality, brotherhood, mutual help, real rather than just formal freedom. Disillusioned leftists have pointed out that democratic centralism "worked" and was meaningful before liberation; it tended to become an empty rhetoric watchword and just a formal façade "after liberation" when the new state institutions gave the leaders once freely followed an instrument to enforce "discipline." Enforced discipline now tends to replace voluntary, freely chosen discipline. The debates engaged in before liberation were carried out in the spirit of wanting to hear all opinions of those who shared the common goal of emancipation of the oppressed popular classes. There was openness and tolerance, up to a point. The "point" in question varied in different movements, at different times. In view of the clear and present danger that every such movement engaged in a revolutionary struggle faces, a debate that would undercut morale and the resolve to fight was never tolerated.  The disillusioned, who advocate a clearer adherence to real pluralism among all women and men of good will, thus among all those who are ready to overcome the privilege of the few and domination by the few (which are so typical of the "old society"), often maintain that the seductive effect of power is real. They fear a monopoly of power, and thus fear unchecked leaders regardless of how humane, courageous, dedicated to the struggle, intelligent and morally integer these leaders may have been initially. Holding power changes those in power, they say; the social pyramid that is the paradigmatic structure of class societies can be replaced by a pyramid of political power structuring an movement or party that claims to have the emancipation of the many at heart. The organization structure that reflects the model of a pyramid of power is usually justified by so-called orthodox, radically left organizations. Their leaders and propagandists and convinced members will say that the struggle requires unity of action, and that in the post-liberation phase, working for the new society requires a unified will of the people, a volonté générale, and the adherence to a scientific approach; science, even social science, or the science of analyzing class society and of ways of overcoming it, knows only the alternative of correct and faulty solutions, it is maintained. The leaders must follow the correct path. This seems simplistic and formalistic to unorthodox left critics, even though they agree that broadly speaking, "competing command centers" are counterproductive. The alternative to democratic centralism (as practiced up to now, in different contexts) that is suggested by such critics is a materially free, open, patient and tolerant form of achieving a consensus among the masses and among their delegates, if any (if, that is, a large number of plenary assemblies that communicate the results of their debates to the other assembles, is not preferred):

This small, abbreviated critique of democratic centralism, as practiced during all but the initial phase in the Soviet Union and as practiced in a different way in post-liberation China should not make us close our eyes to the fact that, regardless of how "Stalinist" the Korean Workers Party in the North of the country ymay have become between 1945 and 1949, it did not lose the backing of the masses. It is inconceivable that frightened, mentally tortured soldiers would have fought so courageously against the technologically superior US army. Most of these soldiers believed, and believed for good reason, that their class brothers in the South were suppressed and that they were fighting to liberate them and achieve the unity of a country where such suppression would no longer exist. An American social historian has diagnosed such genuine dedication among Soviet Russian soldiers fighting the German Hitler wehrmacht in Stalingrad. The frequently heard view that Red Army soldiers were like slaves, with polit- commissars forcing them to fight, gun in hand, is a fairy tale not confirmed by a study of a large amount of private diaries and letters of Red Army soldiers from that time. 

It would require a lot of speculation, should we attempt to say whether loyalty to the leadership in the North of the Korean peninsula has remained genuine after the Korean war. What is clear is that a reconstruction program comparable to the industrialization effort and the urbanist policy of creating new towns in the Soviet Union under Stalin was carried out. Even this, though under an undemocratic regime in Russia, depended on the élan of a large part of the population, on their belief in these policies, and their basic trust that this was a good course to follow. The Soviet example shows, however, that "idealistic" élan and a fear to utter non-conformist or "suspicious" views can go hand in hand, in almost schizophrenic manner, in the same mind. 

North Korea got into really bad trouble when the Warsaw
Pact and COMECON collapsed. Any state would be n deep trouble when confronted with an abrupt and long-term breakdown of international exchange relations. No country, not even a big one, can claim complete autarchy (?). In the case of small countries the dependency on international economic exchange makes them especially woundable.

While the North had to rely largely on its own strength to rebuild the country after the Korean war, the South got massive US aid. Clearly, US administrations wanted to transform countries like West Germany, Taiwan and South Korea that bordered on the "Iron Curtain"  (respectively "Bamboo Curtain") into "showcases" of "successful Capitalism." While disregarding the problems of many so-called Third World countries, the US gave the economies of Taiwan and South Korea a boost that made the take-off much easier than it would have been without such aid.

But the decisive factor of the so-called economic miracle in these two countries was etatist economic planning conducted by the bureaucracies of these two dictatorial regimes. The result were high growth rates of two dependent capitalist economies. Industrial production in these two countries locked into the structure of US and West European "global factory" strategies, helping Western MNCs outsource labor-intensive processes to low-wage countries. At the same time, the authoritarian state, while making incentives available to foreign investors, provided a modernized infrastructure to foreign nand local firms. While being export-oriented, and soon profiting from most-favored-nation status, these economies tended to shut out foreign competition in their home markets. This was tolerated by Washington to a surprising degree, because it was seen as vital to shelter the development path embarked on by the two regimes.

In South Korea, big conglomerates like Hyundai became very powerful and closely linked to government. A weakness of these big corporations, so-called chaebol, was their relatively small self-financing rate. Loan-financed expansion and dependence on South Korean and Japanese banks did not matter very much as long as strong export growth prevailed. It became problematic when exports slackened, and when -- due to the economic crisis in Japan (caused by the strong yen, reduced exports, and a bursting property market bubble -- Japanese banks, suddenly hard-hit due to exposure to property-market related loans, wanted their money back from the Koreans. 

Taiwan was hit much less during this so-called East Asian financial crisis, because Taiwanese firms were mostly medium-sized or small, because loan exposure was not as important, because exports were more diversified and both the Japanese and the US market did not play the same overwhelming role as in South Korea.

Basically the ecnomic miracle helped modernize the country by Americanizing it ideologically, by giving a boost to a new middle class, and by proplelling consumerist wishes even among the poor, those who could least afford them. The advantage of low wages was defended for a long time, genuine trade-unions were outlawed and could not form in Taiwan; in South Korea, a militant trade union movement developed despite harsh repressive measures but for many years it was practically illegal.
While the middle class embraced the new model of dependent development, seeing it as justified because these middle class people profited from it, workers were over-exploited, received low pay, and were subject to government control and to the paternalist authority of entrepreneurs who behaved like true Confucians. Peasants and even owners of larger farms became loyal subjects because of protectionist measures. The salt of the earth, the class-conscious rebellious peasants that breathed the spirit of anarchism and mutual help that has such deep roots in these East Asian (originally agrarian) societies, had been subject to arrests and executions in Taiwan in the period starting in Feb. 1947, and in South Korea in 1948-49 and during the war. 

Today South Korean farmers worry more about cheap US beef imports than about revolution, even though the proud nationalism of the many who objected to colonialism is deeply entrenched and often at odds with the official variety celebrated by the rulers. 

As so often, there are also undercurrents that are even more at odds with the celebrated system and its modernity. They are rooted in the memory of injustice and suffering, and it is clear that words and thoughts that give expression to the wounds hidden in the mind and scarred body of ordinary countryfolk,  miners, and industrial workers are not welcome in the chic neighborhoods and government quarters. The scent of past rebellion lingers in the air, in the popular quarters of the cities, and here and there, also in the countryside,

- David Koo


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Mount Halla (Halla san), Cheju Island 

Global UNESCO-designated geoparks are overwhelmingly near the naval base under construction